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Alchemy // Unrated // February 9, 2016
List Price: $24.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted February 7, 2016 | E-mail the Author
"I think I need a vacation after that vacation!" Yeah, good one, Dad (Jeremy Sisto). He and Mom (Kate Ashfield) are still grabbing luggage out of the trunk as the kids (real-life siblings Ryan and Ty Simpkins) head inside and realize what's happened. The entire damned house has been turned upside down. In the two weeks the Millers have been away, someone broke in through a kitchen window and made themselves right at home: ate their food, slept in their beds, watched their home movies, rifled through their daughter's drawers, scrawled some kind of hangman in the shower with ketchup, and generally just tore through the place like a fucking tornado. It's gotta just be some bored kids looking for a laugh, right? Some vagrants who stumbled upon a cozy place to squat for a couple weeks? No matter who's to blame, the cops say the place is clear now and that this is an increasingly familiar story. Lesson learned. Clean up as best they can. Try to move on with their lives.

The only thing more terrifying than that sort of violation...? He's still there.

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Hangman is a found footage film that...wait! Stop! I get that your kneejerk reaction upon hearing "found footage" is to immediately click away to another review or whatever, but director Adam Mason and co-writer Simon Boyes really do make exceptional use of the format. In the weeks that the Millers were away, this lone, nameless lunatic has stationed cameras and microphones throughout their home. From his hidden control center in the attic, the Hangman leers at the family at their most exposed...learns their most closely guarded secrets...and watches them over and over and over. Unlike most found footage flicks where you're inevitably left wondering "wait, so why is he still filming this?", the killer's compulsion to document everything makes sense narratively, and more of the footage than not is captured by stationary cameras anyway. We're looking through his eyes, sharing his voyeuristic gaze.

There are several defining aspects of Hangman that set it apart from the glut of other found footage films out there. First, it's a home invasion thriller, and I've always been a bit of an easy lay for those. I mean, I don't live in constant fear of a zombie apocalypse, I'm not a counselor at some lakeside summer camp, and I'm quite a few states away from the threat of a Texan chainsaw massacre, but I do have a house in the suburbs. The prospect of some maniac choosing my home at random, breaking in, and terrorizing me is a very real fear. The Hangman doesn't have any pre-existing association with the Miller family. He's just waiting in an airport parking garage for his next victims to present themselves, and Poppa Miller just happens to park in the wrong place at the wrong time. It's the draw of that bad, random card that's particularly unsettling. This isn't revenge, and there is no motive beyond a compulsion to torment and kill.

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There's a too-familiar formula that most home invasion thrillers follow: your home -- the place where you most feel safe -- becomes a claustrophobic prison. You're bound. You're chased. You're subjected to physical and psychological torment beyond description. Hangman takes an entirely different approach. The Miller family has no idea that this psychopath remains in their home, and that's entirely by design. It's not that this deranged bastard remains hidden in the shadows; he's often just around the corner, practically within arm's reach, or even leering over them as they sleep. It's a game to see how far he can bend the bow before it breaks, and although he's damned good at it, the movie ekes out quite a bit of suspense in the process. The Hangman more subtly toys with his prey: say, hocking a loogie in the family's orange juice that he repeatedly leaves out on the counter overnight or using their toothbrushes. He's fascinated with the idea of pitting this family against one another, from revealing their daughter's failing math grade to fabricated infidelity. Perhaps his voyeurism started by masturbating as wives undress for the shower or make love to their husbands, but he's no longer content to merely observe any longer. Although he doesn't directly engage any of the Millers until the film's final moments -- not while they're fully conscious, anyway -- his endgame is clear from the outset. The movie opens with a panicked 911 call, a lifeless body dangling from the ceiling, and a savage stabbing. It's a different set of victims, yes, but the inevitable outcome remains clear. It's also worth noting that the body count does tick upward somewhat as he toys with the Millers, even if the family itself is, for a time, safe.

Hangman brilliantly renders its titular murderer. He's silent and methodical. The way in which he preys on these families isn't borne from volcanic rage so much as a compulsion to pull the wings off flies. His face remains hidden from view, even from the gaze of his own cameras. No one else will ever see this footage, yet he's still compelled to disassociate who he is from what he does. He doesn't utter a word -- not on-camera, anyway -- until the film's final moments. There are glimpses into his psychosis, sobbing and abusing himself, but Hangman wisely doesn't overuse such moments, preferring instead to keep its killer as enigmatic as possible. Eric Michael Cole is saddled with a nameless, all-but-mute character he has to build almost entirely through physicality, and the presence he brings to the Hangman is pitch-perfect.

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Some suspension of disbelief is admittedly required. That many cameras and not a single one is discovered by the family? The police haven't picked up on the pattern of hangman-themed home invasions that shortly thereafter result in stacks of corpses? A madman routinely leaping down from an upstairs attic, through the master bedroom, down the stairs, and back again throughout his extensive stalking and never once being heard? Not hearing an Xacto Knife be unsheathed from a couple feet away when wide awake? As intense and effective as the climax is, it's still somewhat of a letdown. The killer finally manipulates parents Aaron and Beth past the breaking point, and rather than revel in the fallout, he prematurely decides to reveal himself. That their immediate reaction isn't to get the fuck out of the house betrays the characters I felt like I'd gotten to know somewhat. Hangman deserves a better ending than this. Despite falling apart somewhat as it draws to a close, Hangman still establishes itself as a unique, unsettling, and remarkably effective thriller, and those with a taste for something different would do well to seek it out. Recommended.

This Blu-ray release of Hangman isn't polished to some gleaming, cinematic sheen or whatever, but that's entirely the point. Every last frame is meant to have been captured through the lenses of its title character's array of cameras, from the camcorder he lugs around to the slew of snake cams hidden throughout the house. Not only is the image frequently rough-hewn and riddled with digital artifacts, but sometimes fuzzy, noisy, monochromatic video will be playing on a laptop and in turn by photographed by another camera. The quality depends on the camera in play at any given time, what's being captured, and how much light there is to play with. It's an approach that doesn't make for home theater eye candy so much but serves Hangman remarkably well.

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Hangman creeps onto a single-layer Blu-ray disc at its native aspect ratio of 1.78:1. Despite its spy-cam aesthetic, the movie does boast a cinematic frame rate of 24fps.

Hangman's 24-bit Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack is also defined by this vérité approach. Every word that's spoken and every sound that's heard is supposed to have been captured by this psychopath's recording equipment. Even though the Hangman isn't exactly puttering around the Millers' home with a boom mic, the end result is outstanding. The strong stereo separation across the front channels makes an immediate impression. Dialogue is consistently clean and discernable. Though what little music is heard is entirely diagetic, it can unleash some pounding, punishing bass just the same. The subwoofer also nicely reinforces a few key effects, such as the Hangman chucking a bag down from the attic. Although this is technically a 5.1 track, I couldn't hear anything snarling from the surround channels at all. That's a mild disappointment, but otherwise, this is exactly the soundtrack that Hangman demands.

Also included are a Dolby Digital stereo track (192kbps) and subtitles in English (SDH) and French.

The sole extra is a minute-long trailer. Hangman does come packaged in a glossy slipcase, for what it's worth.

The Final Word
Hangman defies all the usual conventions. This is a found footage film in which its subjects are wholly unaware that they're being photographed, and it's a home invasion thriller where its victims have no idea a psychopath remains inside. Even with as mixed as the reception has generally been to Hangman, I'm deeply impressed by what Adam Mason, Simon Boyes, and their talented cast have accomplished here. It's not often that my chief complaint is a roundabout compliment: that everything it had done up until the end was so effective that I would've preferred to see more of that rather than breathlessly rush towards a climax. Recommended.
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